The Marguerite Casey Foundation (MCF) set out in 2001 with a radical idea: Build a movement led by low-income families who are empowered to change their communities and lives with a greater voice in the systems that define poverty in America.
It was a radical idea because the movement would cut across issues, regions, egos, politics, organizational turf, race and ethnicity to unify families to fight poverty. But how do you spark and sustain a movement without a single mobilizing cause or leader?
The movement needed a way for families and organizations to work together across this spectrum. It needed a new kind of network that reflected its mission.
Over the next 15 years, the foundation invested in regional networks that spanned the issues low-income families face every day. In some of the nation’s poorest communities, families and organizations built what they dubbed Equal Voice Networks, putting aside individual agendas to develop common goals and solutions. These networks became the mortar of the movement, unifying families, community groups and advocates around collective actions.
Today, Equal Voice Networks are at the forefront of a dynamic approach to philanthropy that shows the most effective and innovative ways to fight poverty come from those who have experienced it firsthand. Around the country, hundreds of thousands of low-income families have mobilized as part of networks within a national Equal Voice movement to win better wages, improvements in criminal justice systems, changes in health care, LGBT rights, better schools, and immigration reforms.
Now Equal Voice Networks are linking to one another to mobilize families across entire states. In California, four regional networks and 37 MCF grantees are considering an action plan that could unify North, Central, and Southern California, along with the Inland Empire, behind an agenda focused on wages, criminal justice reform and civic engagement. This collective action promises a network of networks for the nation’s most populous state, and a model that could amplify the voice and power of families nationwide.
“We began locally. We are now working on statewide networks, and we will move to a national scale and movement,” Marguerite Casey Foundation President and CEO Luz Vega-Marquis says. “We need to connect and empower families, and this new network moves power to families, enabling them to drive social change.”
By moving power to families, networks flipped a traditional relationship in philanthropy. Instead of telling grantees and families what to do, the foundation placed leadership in their hands. The foundation took a supportive role by awarding grants for infrastructure and facilitators, known as network weavers.
During the foundation’s first 15 years, networks have been an integral part of the strategy that has guided all of its work: Ask. Listen. Act. Foundation leaders and staff have asked families what they needed, listened to their answers, and acted by supporting networks that shifted power to the families themselves.
An idea that was an outlier in 2001 is now gaining traction within the world of philanthropy. When the Ford Foundation unveiled its new vision last year, for example, its president, Darren Walker, stressed that “(b)uilding durable institutions and networks will be among our highest priorities…”
“Networks are fulcrums for creativity and dissent, beacons of stability, scaffolding for aspiring change makers, and connectors for social innovators.
This is why we’re excited to reaffirm that, over the next five years, we will dedicate $1 billion for building institutions and networks through our BUILD program,” Walker wrote in a November 2015 blog post that laid out Ford’s plan for the future.
Networks and Weavers: Engines of Change
For the Marguerite Casey Foundation, networks are engines of change with a basic yet ambitious mission: Bring families and local organizations together to make changes in their communities that they could not make alone.
“The individual organizations that make up the RGV EVN (Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network in Texas) are not large enough on their own to attract significant attention or to affect meaningful, lasting change,” Michael Seifert, network weaver for the RGV EVN, has said. “Yet, as a collective, they have begun to pool their skills and resources, and together have raised public awareness to begin to challenge the powerful Texas establishment.”
If Equal Voice Networks are the mortar in the growing family-led movement, network weavers such as Seifert are its masons, connecting families, groups, and community leaders around common agendas and actions. Network weavers are tasked with getting and keeping regional networks working by helping members identify mutual interests and issues, share information, and strengthen relationships to expand their collective impact. It is a broad and subtle role that covers everything from setting meeting times to establishing priorities. Sometimes, a network weaver’s most important job is getting members in the same room on a regular basis, and then simply listening.
“Network weavers represent and exemplify many of the foundation’s founding values,” MCF’s Vega-Marquis wrote in May 2014. “They grasp a lesson that has informed and infused the work of the foundation for more than a decade now: Effective leaders are also followers – sometimes they take the opportunity to speak, but most of the time they’re listening, learning, supporting and guiding. In their day-to-day work, they embody the foundation’s promise to Ask, Listen, Act.”
Network weavers bring members together, but Equal Voice Networks drive change. Over the last decade, these networks helped win everything from reduced prison sentences in California to more accurate census counts in the Rio Grande Valley.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the Texas establishment and even the federal government now turn to the local Equal Voice Network for help.
Days before U.S. Census workers began knocking on doors around South Texas in 2010, the agency’s national director asked for a meeting with the Equal Voice Network to discuss ways to ensure a more accurate count, which would help the region receive a fairer share of federal resources. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña traveled to the region to meet with the network.
Building Networks and a Movement
The foundation always envisioned a national movement of families, but that movement began at the local level, with networks in the Rio Grande Valley and the Mississippi Delta. Both regions were home to deeply entrenched poverty; community groups with track records of creating change; and, perhaps most importantly, active and engaged families involved in making that change.
The networks were created not only to mobilize families, but also to connect regions, races and ethnicities – in this case, primarily Black residents of the Delta with predominantly Latino families of the Rio Grande Valley. As members visited each other’s towns and cities, they saw past race to shared strategies, including ways to fight for fairer legislative district maps, members recalled.
“It really made our worlds smaller, or closer together,” says Joyce Hall Parker, network weaver for the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable, the formal name of the Delta network.
Initially, networks focused on building relationships and trust among members. Once that trust was established, members looked for a central project on which to collaborate, and created working groups that reflected their shared priorities.
“(T)he rules that work for the Network would be the same rules that would work in a healthily functioning family situation: mutual respect and an explicit understanding that people do things differently, and people say things differently,” the RGV EVN’s Seifert has said.
To nurture trust and collaboration within and across the two regions, the foundation brought the fledgling networks together at a convening in McAllen, Texas in 2006. In the years to come, one of the foundation’s most valuable roles would be bringing networks together at similar regional and national meetings.
Growing Networks by Bringing Families Together
Two years after the McAllen meeting, on Sept. 6, 2008, the foundation sponsored its biggest convening yet when it brought 15,000 people together simultaneously in three cities – Los Angeles, Chicago, and Birmingham, Ala. – for the first Equal Voice for America’s Families national convention. The event – connected by simulcast – was the culmination of an Equal Voice Campaign that had included 65 town halls in 12 states over the previous year.
While the foundation sponsored the meeting, families and grantees took on the work of hashing out the direction the Equal Voice movement would take. Together, they created a national family platform that covered issues those involved decided were central to the economic and social well-being of families, formed national and regional advisory boards, and named regional coordinators.
In the years following the national convention, families and grantees created more Equal Voice Networks around the country. This opened the second phase in the development of Equal Voice Networks, which now total 14.
The foundation supported these emerging networks with three rounds of mini-grants – one-year awards of up to $30,000 – from 2009 to 2011. Networks used the first round to foster collaboration, such as a summit on juvenile justice in Mississippi; engage families and develop leadership; hold community meetings and focus groups; and host events on social media.
The second round of grants helped existing and new networks expand infrastructure. Finally, the third set supported expanding capacity, training leaders, and engaging families in policy and campaign efforts.
Despite these investments, growth among networks was uneven. Those in the South and Southwest sometimes struggled to coalesce around common agendas and work, as well as to include all grantees in the area.
By 2011, however, California was home to two thriving networks, Equal Voice for Southern California Families Alliance and the Bay Area Equal Voice Coalition. In Southern California, the Alliance used part of its $90,000 in mini-grants to craft a three-year plan that helped it engage two million residents in get-out-the-vote activities, fight cuts in education funding, run phone banks, conduct door-to-door canvasing, and distribute voter guides.
“These resources advanced the work that the Alliance wanted to do,” says Sally Lew, the Alliance’s network weaver. “It really accelerated [the effort].”
The Bay Area Equal Voice Coalition offered a lesson in how a network can come to life with the support of a dedicated network weaver.
In 2010 the Bay Area Coalition was adrift, without unifying projects or a clear agenda. Things changed when they began working with a foundation-sponsored network weaver. Like other successful network weavers, Donna Bransford already knew most of the organizations and got them in the same room, where they learned what others were doing and began working on a common agenda.
“The weaver shouldn’t be setting the agenda. The weaver’s job is to support it and keep it moving,” Bransford said. When “there is not a dedicated person it is really hard.”
Like Sally Lew, Bransford believes low-income families can change the systems and policies that affect their lives.
“Network weavers are people who believe that change is possible, and who want to see that change” MCF’s Vega-Marquis says. “You have to walk tightly among the different perspectives, but eventually you have to help unite them, and it helps to have good leaders in the network who can see beyond their own interests.”
The Bay Area Coalition’s growing effectiveness was perhaps clearest in 2014 after California passed Proposition 47, which reclassified certain low-level drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.
Prop. 47 held the power to transform families because a parent could gain an early release from prison, have a sentence reduced, or change a felony record to a misdemeanor for certain offenses. While Parent Voices recognized Prop. 47’s potential, the San Francisco-based child care group and network member knew little about the new law.
The network weaver connected Parent Voices with a member who knew a lot more – the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which works with current and formerly incarcerated youth and adults, as well as their families.
The Ella Baker Center helped Parent Voices understand Prop. 47, and the groups worked on trainings for parents on how to get their records changed. Changing felonies to misdemeanors under the law could help families qualify for child care support and other social services. As important, they worked together and with other grantees to demand that money saved under Prop. 47 by reducing incarceration costs be used to fund education and family services.
Four years after being adrift, the Bay Area Equal Voice Network was collaborating to improve the lives of families and influencing social systems in their communities.
The ability of networks to elevate the collective power of families and organizations extends well beyond the foundation’s grantees. The national Native Voice Network has 30 members, but less than half receive grants from the foundation.
When the Native Voice Network organized a national call-in to pressure FedEx over its association with the NFL’s franchise in Washington, D.C., it mobilized both grantees and non-grantees. FedEx responded by stating that it supported the field and facility, but not the team. When FedEx distanced itself from the team and controversy over its name, it showed members they had power, recalls Chrissie Castro, the network weaver for the Native Voice Network.
It also showed that the ideas and vision of Equal Voice Networks and a family-led movement had power beyond the foundation’s base of grantees.
We were “starting to collect a little bit of muscle,” Castro said. “It is only going to get bigger and we are only going to have more of that base to tap into.”
The Next Generation of Networks
Whether it is mobilizing families to pressure corporations on social justice or getting people to vote, the success of established networks is inspiring a new wave.
In California, the small group of organizations that make up Equal Voice for Change in the Central Valley is beginning to work together on the minimum wage, increasing education funding and advocating on immigration issues.
To the South, the San Diego Equal Voice Network is starting to collaborate on the minimum wage, voter registration and immigrant rights, as well as preventing wage theft and adding local hire provisions.
The network “has a way of multiplying the effect of each individual organization,” says Amber Cyphers Stephens, San Diego’s network weaver.
On a warm weekend in February, these two new networks joined California’s longer-established networks along with MCF grantees in San Diego to work toward a statewide network. By the end of the weekend, they were drafting a potential action plan that included a #DayofEquity across California, support for a statewide minimum wage, broader and deeper civic engagement, and implementation of Prop. 47. The draft plan could unify for the first time the state’s networks, grantees, and thousands of families they represent around a common set of goals.
Although Northern and Southern California may seem like two states, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told grantees at the end of the meeting, “We can come together.”
If the nation’s most populous state can come together behind a statewide advocacy plan, it would be a big step toward realizing Marguerite Casey Foundation’s vision of a network of networks – a national movement that empowers the people who understand poverty best to lead the way to solutions.
These networks are already well on the way, unifying families and groups across racial, cultural, and geographic boundaries to have a stronger impact than they ever could alone.
“A movement happens when people from across an area start thinking the same way, understanding the issues the same way and understanding the solutions the same way. And I think that’s what’s happening with Equal Voice,” Rev. Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, then-executive director of the Chicago-based TARGET Area Development Corp., said in 2008, as the Equal Voice for America’s Families Movement was picking up steam. “I think that is what Marguerite Casey is doing.”
Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News. He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. He has covered social policy for more than 20 years. About the top image: Bob Cabeza (left) of the YMCA of Greater Long Beach shares ideas with meeting participants at Marguerite Casey Foundation’s regional gathering in San Diego in February. Photo by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News.
2016 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper